About an hour before sundown, cars line up along State Highway 19E in Elizabethton, Tenn., waiting their turn to roll past the admissions gate and into an era that almost has vanished from the American landscape – a night at the drive-in theater.
Once they’re inside, Andy Whetsel, owner of the State Line Drive-In, enjoys watching drivers jockey for position as they stake out territory. The prime spots in the first four rows still are served by old-fashioned, pole-mounted speakers; others in the 216-car open-air theater rely on AM or FM stereo sound transmitted through car radios.
Children waiting for the movie romp about the playground in front of the screen while adults trek to the snack bar – dinner and a movie. The State Line offers popcorn, sodas, hot dogs, candy, and its famous Chilly Dilly pickle, but patrons at many other drive-ins also find grilled hamburgers, barbecue, french fries, sno-cones, and ice cream. Some bring their own treats, but alcohol is discouraged; the drive-in movie is a family outing today.
“We do this for the community,” explains Whetsel, who works full time as a firefighter. “We love having families come in and enjoy a good, clean night out.”
The drive-in theater is a world apart from the massive multiplex cinemas dotting our landscape. Most operate with only one or two screens, and yet hold their own in towns such as Keysville, Va., and Gu-Win, Ala., by emphasizing family fun and old-fashioned values.
“People think they?ll go out to the drive-in and find a bunch of baby boomers trying to relive the past, but that?s just not what you see,” says Tim Thompson of Elkton, Ky., a father of four. “You see a lot of people with young children.”
Thompson should know. He has a passion for drive-ins, and estimates he’s visited nearly 200 over the years. He’s even created a website, driveintheater.com, to offer history, links, and a state-by-state directory of these drive-in summer theaters.
More than nostalgia, he sees affordable fun: drive-ins often offer two or three first-run movies at low prices, and children usually are admitted free. “You can get there early, get something to eat, and make more of a family night of it,” he explains.
“Labor of love”
Outdoor theaters have been a different breed since 1933, when Richard M. Hollingshead of Camden, N.J., who loved both cars and movies, mounted a Kodak projector on the hood of his car and screened his first film on a bed sheet nailed between trees in his back yard. After vigorous testing for parking and sound quality, Hollingshead opened America?s first drive-in theater that year in Camden.
Riding on America’s new enthusiasm for automobiles, drive-ins flourished for decades until, by the late 1950s, nearly 5,000 screens lit the night skies of America. Today about 800 survive.
Hollingshead’s original outdoor theater is just a memory, but the nation’s second – Shankweiler’s Auto Park in Whitehall, Pa. – still welcomes moviegoers as it has since 1934. Paul Geissinger came to that drive-in as a projectionist in 1971, and so enjoyed working there that he and his wife bought it in 1984. As with most drive-in owners, keeping it alive is a labor of love.
“We’ve been offered money for the land,” Geissinger says, “but I love entertaining people.” He especially enjoys walking the field and hearing the audience while a film is playing. “It’s fun when people have their car windows open on a nice moonlit summer night and you can hear families having a good time.”
Geissinger sees the drive-in as an antidote to the crazy schedules that have parents and children operating on vastly different timetables. “The American automobile is like a home away from home,” he suggests. “Hopefully, the drive-in brings them back together as a family unit so they can relax.”
Restoring the past
If maintaining a drive-in can be an uphill battle in an age of malls and chain-owned cinemas, bringing one back to life is a modern-day miracle. Yet, at least 15 have risen from decay in the last few years.
Richard Boaz owns one of them. Boaz, a former federal librarian from Virginia, was a regular patron at the local drive-in as a teenager, but had no ambitions of operating one. That changed when he relocated to South Carolina and came upon the Big Mo in Monetta, a theater that had been closed for 13 years.
“Vines were growing all over the marquee, the roof of the ticket stand was caved in, and the screen was about half blown out,” he recalls. “There were 30-foot pine trees growing on the field.”
It was there that Boaz experienced a revelatory moment similar to Kevin Costner’s character in the baseball fantasy, Field of Dreams – if you build it, they will come.
“I knew nothing about projection, film distribution, concessions, accounting, taxation of businesses. Zero,” he confesses. “The learning curve was completely vertical.”
He purchased the property in March 1998 and spent his free time restoring it. He battled wasps, gnats, and fire ants with every visit but found encouragement as he finished his workday.
“At the end of the evening, there would be a kind of a cool breeze that would pick up and it was at those moments that I would lean back against the car, take a swig out of my water bottle and say, “This is what it’s going to be like. We’re going to have this moment, and we’re going to be able to share it,”” he remembers.
The Big Mo bounded back to life a year later and managed to make money its first season, an unusual feat for any small business. “Once we got it open,” he says, “people were experiencing what I had experienced and were very appreciative of what we were doing.”
For Tom and Susan Magocs, who own the Capri Drive-In in Coldwater, Mich., theater operation is a family affair. In 1994 they took over the theater his parents built 36 years ago, and live next door with their children-ages 3, 9, and 13.
“It’s like being an old farm family,” Susan Magocs explains. “Everybody works together and lives together. Our kids have actually grown up in the drive-in. They all come to work with us every night.” The two older children help out, while the 3-year-old spent last season in the baby bed tucked behind the concession area.
One reason for the revival of drive-ins is the availability of first-run movies. In the 1980s, drive-ins typically showed only films that had finished their run in indoor theaters. The result was scratchy, worn prints of movies past their peak. The era also was marked by films catering to adults.
After that time, “it seems like Hollywood started creating family films,” Magocs says. “When they did that, our crowd basically changed. We started getting families back out.”
Today’s drive-ins win fans by emphasizing fun. “A lot of people are sparking up with more showmanship like you used to see in the ’50s and ’60s,” Thompson notes. It’s not unusual for drive-ins to host vintage car shows, Oscar parties, trivia contests, field games, and live music to add excitement to the evening.
And whether the incentive is greater value, privacy, or nostalgia, drive-ins have not lost their appeal. Thompson says his website averages 30,000 hits a week during the summer, with many visitors looking for a place to watch the latest movies in the comfort of their own cars.
The industry may have faded somewhat, but the magic lives on.
Michael Nolan has fond childhood memories of seeing The Ghost and Mr. Chicken with his family at the local drive-in.